There are so many choices available for pet foods these days. It can be overwhelming.
But, armed with a little knowledge and common sense, you can choose a healthy, balanced and safe diet for your pet.
First, it’s important to know there are a lot of marketing myths that can add to the confusion. For example: Are grains inherently bad for dogs and cats? Absolutely not, and they can provide a healthy source of protein and fiber if provided in the right balance with other nutrients. Domesticated dogs and cats have evolved significantly from their ancestors, but even their ancestors had some grains in their diets. Wild cats and dogs consume grains within their preys’ gastrointestinal tracts, as well as “graze” on some grasses and grains. So, grains can be a part of a healthy, balanced diet for dogs and cats, although it’s not recommended that they constitute the main source of protein.
Cats are obligate carnivores and require a high percentage of protein and limited carbohydrates in the diet. In particular, it’s best to limit carbohydrates in most cats to between 2 and 12 percent of their caloric intake.
Domestic dogs are more tolerant of carbohydrates and have actually evolved over the last 10,000 years to digest starches and carbohydrates better than their wolf relatives. It’s not unusual to see dogs thriving on diets with over 50 percent carbohydrate content.
When choosing a protein source, it’s tempting to go for the exotic: Bison! Wild boar! Tilapia!
But if we think about what cats would naturally eat — small critters such as birds, bunnies and mice — then poultry and rabbit make more sense.
Also, cats don’t naturally catch and eat fish for the most part. In fact, large animal proteins such as beef and lamb, as well as fish and seafood, are among the biggest offenders in adverse food reactions in cats. Dogs are also more likely to react to beef than other proteins.
Neither cats nor dogs tolerate dairy well, in general. After being weaned from their mothers, they gradually decrease production of lactase (an enzyme that helps break down dairy during digestion). Dairy is also high on the list in many studies of common food reactions in cats and dogs.
Another common misconception is that feeding dry, “crunchy” diets and treats helps to clean the teeth and stimulate the gums. The average dry dog or cat food is too brittle and too small to affect oral health (similar to chewing on dry cereal), but there are a few diets and treats that have been specially formulated for dental care.
Unfortunately, label claims for oral health are poorly regulated so you can’t tell just by reading the bag. However, you can look for the Veterinary Oral Health Council seal to ensure a food meets the required standards to control tartar and plaque.
Another common question is about raw diets. Are raw diets the “all-natural” panacea claimed by some?
The meats contained in raw foods are not caught and eaten “in the wild” but are typically processed through manufacturing plants and handled by humans, similar to meats in grocery stores but often without the same level of quality control.
Some of the reported risks of feeding raw diets include:
- Human and pet exposure to bacterial contamination like salmonella, e. coli or listeria. Please see the FDA Pet Food Recall website (fda.gov/animalveterinary/safetyhealth/recallswithdrawals/) for a list of safety and contamination recalls that is updated frequently.
- Fractured teeth, gastrointestinal perforations and blockages from bone ingestion.
- Hyperthyroidism from consumption of excess thyroid tissue.
- Pancreatitis and / or gastroenteritis (inflammation of the pancreas and / or gastrointestinal tract).
- Joint problems in rapidly growing large breed puppies.
Reading through labels can also be confusing, especially with all the myths repeatedly found on Internet searches. For example, do meat byproducts really contain hair, hooves, horns and teeth? Absolutely not.
AAFCO (the Association of Animal Feed Control Officials) is an organization that regulates the terms used on labels, and, by definition, “byproducts” are made up of the clean parts of the animal other than the “meat” (muscle tissue). These items can include organs, fat and bone but not hair, hooves, etc. Please see the website aafco.org/Consumers/What-is-in-Pet-Food for more information on the many terms used on pet food labels.
A few additional quick tips:
- If you have a small pet, buy the small bag of food. Buying in bulk may seem cost-conscious but it’s safer to buy less than a 30-day supply at a time to prevent spoilage, especially if the food uses natural preservatives.
- Look for the AAFCO statement ensuring that the food has been shown to be complete and balanced for your pet’s life stage, and that actual animal feeding tests have been performed to substantiate this claim (as opposed to a diet simply being formulated on paper to meet basic requirements).
- Pay attention to how your pets look and act on the diet: Do they have normal and regular bowel movements? Healthy coat and skin?
In general, you shouldn’t need to seek out exotic protein sources and grain-free foods unless your pet has a very specific dietary intolerance. In fact, it may be best to initially avoid these types of food for your healthy pet, as he or she may eventually need a specialty diet and early exposure can sometimes sensitize a pet to a particular protein.
Finally, when choosing a diet, look for a reputable pet food company. Does the company own the manufacturing plants where the food is made? How much control do they have over their suppliers? Do they participate in research and use a boarded veterinary nutritionist to formulate diets? Do they have a good safety record with few or no recalls? Have their diets been tested through actual AAFCO feeding trials?
You can check company’s websites, help lines and the FDA pet food recall website to learn more before you buy.
How to safely transition your cat to a new food
There are times during your cat’s life that you may want or need to transition him to a different diet. It is important to know that cats and dogs approach their food differently, and the recommendation for how to transition food is different for cats and dogs.
For dogs that are changing diets, the recommendation is to mix the new food with the old food for five to seven days, gradually reducing the amount of old food and increasing the amount of new food. This is not the best way to transition a cat to a new diet.
Cats often don’t like to have their food mixed. In addition, it is not uncommon for cats to be suspicious of their new food and not even attempt to eat it for several weeks.
The best way to transition a cat to a new diet is to offer the new food side-by-side to the old food in a separate dish. Start by putting a small amount of the new food in a dish every day. Cats will sometimes need to look at and smell a new food for several weeks before even attempting it.
Make sure the new food you offer daily is fresh. Dry food can sit overnight for 24 hours, but canned food should be picked up and thrown away after several hours of it not being eaten. Start with small volumes so you are not wasting food.
Once you see that your cat is consistently eating the new food, you can start to reduce the amount of old food until your cat is fully adapted to the new diet.